You’re going to Japan soon. That’s pretty incredible. I’ve heard it described as the furthest you can go away from your own culture without leaving Earth.
2020 Tokyo Olympics is right around the corner. That means general interest in travel to Japan is going to dramatically rise in the next few years. The Japanese are super excited about this. I worked with plenty of people, students and fellow teachers, that were preparing themselves to work as translators and guides for incoming Gaijin (foreigners).
The list I’ve compiled is all the places that I found notable during my year long stay in Tokyo and other parts of the Land of the Rising Sun. It will include parks, shrines, restaurants, and experiences that you will only find in this country.
My wish is that this series of posts will inspire you to be a little more prepared before you go and to gain a deeper understanding than had you not read this.
Most of what I will have to share will be about Tokyo, but I will add some details about other travel destinations as well.
For a little over one year, I called Tokyo my home along with 30 million other people (that’s a quarter of the nation’s population). And one of the things that kept Tokyo so refreshing to me was not just that it was metropolitan behemoth, teeming with things to do and people to see; the city has a nice way of blending the concrete with the natural; the office building with the botanical garden.
That’s why this post is dedicated to the parks, the gardens and the hikes that gave me that healthy dose of luscious green when the city grey had me feeling all sorts of Tokyo blue.
Situated on the east side of Tokyo, this park is world renowned and has been the location for several famous Western films, including the Wolverine movie. Always bustling with tons of tourists and locals, it has a zoo, a big lake, several shrines that offer picturesque opportunities.
It’s always crowded in Tokyo. I would get off work at 9 PM and it would still be rush hour traffic on the trains. Just look at this:
But the amount of people at Ueno Park during cherry blossom season (or hanami) is ludicrous.
Great park near the center of Tokyo. When I think of Yoyogi Park, I think of late night walks with friends and dates, stuffing my face with food and drink during festivals and picnic seasons, and all sorts of showcases from environmentalists to people celebrating their international cultures (Brazil was a notable festival).
I cannot believe that I do not have a single shot of my own so here are a few more from my friends!
Showa Kinen Park
The only reason I found this gem is because I stumbled upon it as I was heading home from an elementary school that was designed in the shape of a circle with no real walls or barriers between classrooms. The kids also get to run around on the roof (The architect of the school gives a surprisingly sweet and inspiring TED talk)!
I decided to return to the trains (hoping to avoid questions about a foreigner in his twenties standing outside an elementary school) when I made my way through this park that made me feel like a kid again. There were hills to climb, pyramids to traverse, secret groves to discover and even a a field covered in a trampoline-like material.
I never realized how important botanical gardens were to me until I lived in Tokyo and was deprived of instantaneous access to nature. But botanical gardens are more than just a break from city life. They are a meditation. They are a mixture of human discipline and the wonders of the natural world. I spent countless afternoons walking through the paths, reading by the ponds and staring in awe at the incredible and agonizing positions the trees had been shaped into. You’ll have to pay to get in ($2-3 US) but they are always worth it.
Plus, among the dozen or so botanical gardens that I visited, most of them offered a pairing of matcha tea with some small traditional Japanese sweets. Those will make your day.
Here are two that I really cherished:
Shinjuku Gyoen affords some peace from the endless on goings of the city center, Shinjuku. Not only does it have the traditional aspects of a botanical garden, the disciplined shaping of tree growth and paths to get lost on, but it also has a huge field where you can play and eat with friends. Free access to the green house is also a big plus.
Unlike Shinjuku Gyoen, Rikyugien is quite traditional and rocks it that way. It is the only garden that I visited enough times where I would have been justified in buying a yearly pass. Situated around a pond, the paths lead you in a circle and inside paths where you come across bridges and water falls, koi and turtles struggling to get the small pieces of bread thrown at them, and small wooden structures. If you are lucky you might be given a free small lesson on green tea.
Yes! Places to hike in Tokyo!
Okutama Mountain Range and Lake
Looking for an escape from the bustling city of Tokyo? Then go no further than… Tokyo. Two hours west of the city center, the Okutama mountain range exists as a hiker’s paradise while still in the prefecture of Tokyo.
I was first attracted to Takao when I learned of Hiwatari-Sai, the Buddhist monk ceremony of walking on burning embers held at the mountain base. I eventually found my way there and hiked to the top. Paths of varying difficulty are lined with monuments to the Buddha and traditional food stands.
This post is meant to give you an exit plan from Tokyo’s madness. My next post, however, will lead you straight into the depths of it all!
See you soon.